ATLANTA — The yardstick labor unions — and potentially a strong majority of American working or middle class voters — will use to judge candidates for president and lower offices next year is simple, said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at the winter meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council on Monday: “What are you going to do to raise our wages?”
But many of those voters will not be waiting for the political candidates’ responses to the continuing trend towards greater inequality, which is partly a result of wages stagnating since the year 2000 while productivity increased by 25 percent.
Trumka also expects — and indeed says he already sees — a spurt in collective action that may not only win some of those wage increases but also add pressure to politicians of both parties, who are still figuring out what they want to say on inequality.
“Collective action is powerful, and it really must be at the heart of the growing discussion about the economy and about raising wages,” Trumka said at the council’s opening meeting on Monday.
Some effects of collective action were on display last week, as Walmart workers’ continued pressure on their employer contributed to a modest but historically significant wage increase; the Communications Workers and Electrical Workers (IBEW) settled a huge strike for a new contract with FairPoint; and the Steelworkers made health and safety of workers and the public key parts of their demands in the recent nationwide oil strike. (Trumka could have added dock and longshore workers who were embroiled in a battle on the Pacific coast until late last week.) And he emphasized that 5 million AFL-CIO union members will be negotiating new contracts next year, including city, state and county workers, auto workers, flight attendants, grocery clerks and others.
The battle over who should have greater power to shape the economy and workers’ lives is both political and economic, with consequences determined by collective action on both fronts. Last year, real wages fell for nearly every tenth of the workforce except the bottom tenth, according to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, and that increase largely reflects increases in the minimum wage in many states through action in legislatures or direct voter referenda.
Unions will be stressing the links between economics and politics this year, perhaps more than usual. The AFL-CIO has trained 1,500 people to serve as popular educators, using its “Common Sense Economics” program. In part, Trumka said, it teaches that “elections have consequences. The economy is nothing but a set of rules made by elected officials, and we can elect people who can change the rules.”
In a resolution approved on Monday, the executive council spoke out strongly for protecting the Dodd-Frank banking regulations now under attack by the Right and for pushing for regulation that would “make banking boring again” — that is, eliminating much of the high-risk financial “innovations” that enriched Wall Street and destabilized the economy in 2008. Such regulations can also make it more likely that the share of the economy going to Wall Street traders will go to ordinary working people instead.
In the last national election, according to an AFL-CIO-sponsored poll that Trumka cited, 57 percent of voters said their wages had fallen, and 34 percent said they had been flat in recent years. Perhaps it is not surprising that in direct referendum votes, every proposal for minimum wage increases or provision of paid sick days passed. It is also not surprising that the voters in the same poll saw Democrats as having no coherent economic message. As a result, the party fared poorly.
Trumka also took inspiration from signs of life in traditional union organizing activity, such as among taxi drivers, and more diffuse but potent efforts such as the fast food workers fight for a $15 wage and a union and OUR Walmart.
“Collective action in the country is on the rise,” he said. “People who don’t even know what unions are, are saying, How do we get together to raise our wages?”
But the right-wing legal and political assault of recent years on worker rights continues. Unions and workers face a wave of new proposals for state “right-to-work” laws, such as the legislation scheduled for a vote in Wisconsin this week. Those proposals, now covering nearly half of all states, prohibit union contracts from requiring non-members to pay a fee to cover union expenses of representing them. On the basis of experience in other states, that type of legislation is unlikely to generate the new jobs sponsors promise. But it is likely to weaken unions and increase corporate power, if only by making it harder for unions to collect dues.
“Everybody knows corporate America is too strong, not too weak,” Trumka said. “These laws strengthen corporations, and where you make them stronger, you get more wage inequality, less pensions, and less health care.”
Labor’s enemies at work and in politics have longed used every division among workers as a wedge to break up the solidarity that ultimately provides the labor movement its strength. “Our job is to prevent them from dividing us [artificially] as they have for the last several decades,” Trumka said.
In response, unions have been trying to strengthen their relationship with allies, aiming, as Trumka said, to make their issues “our issues,” not simply routine formalities. Perhaps most important is the continued push for comprehensive immigration reform and the resistance to barely concealed, subliminal racism described as “dog whistle politics” by a guest speaker to the executive council, legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez.
Besides educating its own members, the AFL-CIO wants to educate the general electorate and, in particular, candidates from both major parties for presidential and lesser offices. Following a model conference in Washington earlier this year on raising wages, the labor federation will hold similar forums in the early primary or caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — that try to force candidates from both parties to address the need for higher wages.
It may be a tougher challenge than the facts of economic life and polling of voters would suggest. Republicans can largely be counted on providing a coherent, if false, promise: Cut taxes and government, and you’ll have more money. Democrats are likely to embrace at least a modest increase in the minimum wage, but all bets are off after that, except for a politically and economically wrong-headed emphasis on everyone getting more education.
It seems that Democrats have been losing elections on an all-too-regular basis despite the troubled conditions of life and frustrated, angry outlook of a majority of voters who have good reason to reject the Republican message. But they are either so distant from those voters, so afraid of many solid progressive policy alternatives (or of the attacks that Republicans mount against them) or so plugged into corporate sources of funding that they are afraid to take a coherent approach that could work both as politics and policy.
Labor unions and their allies will have their work cut out for them in an attempt to get Democrats across the board to adopt their approach. But Trumka is right in seeing an uprising of collective action as a crucial way of bringing the message home: working people deserve both a raise — and greater power in determining the kind of society they live in.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.